Sushi for every one

From tomorrow, the most fashionable eating experience in London will involve picking raw fish from a slow-moving conveyor belt. Welcome to Yo! Sushi, the latest product of the Japanese genius for linking industrial technology and sensual pleasure. By Peter Popham

Like a chicken plucker, you sit at a bar facing a conveyor belt, rubbing shoulders with the stranger on the next stool, and the colour- coded plates of raw fish and rice come trundling along, each protected by a little plastic hood; when you see one you fancy, you make a grab for it. This is the lunchtime experience at Soho's newest and most brashly modern eatery, the gruesomely named Yo! Sushi, which opens formally tomorrow.

One of Japan's most striking contributions to the modern world is what one might call the industrialisation of sensuality. With a long succession of inventions and adaptations, including personal stereos, home video, karaoke systems and fax machines, they have demonstrated a genius for yoking industrial technology to intimate and sensual purposes. Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, invented in the northern city of Sendai in 1968 and now ubiquitous in Japan, with more than 2,000 shops, is one that is just now arriving in the UK.

Japan is still full of traditional sushi-ya, sushi bars, places where one sits at a bar of unvarnished wood that has been scrubbed a painful shade of white by the apprentice-slaves and where the presiding chef conducts himself like the priest of some alarming, occult sect, bellowing at his underlings, sharpening a fearsome selection of knives and with swift, deft strokes slicing the fatty tuna or octopus or cuttlefish to the customer's muttered orders.

There is usually the sound of running water in the background and the gentle rustling of bamboo; green tea, called agari, is served boiling hot in huge, chunky mugs; the arrival of the bill is liable to spoil the experience if you are not mentally prepared for it, but an evening at a good sushi-ya is for many people a distillation of all that is most treasurable about Japan.

The imperative, for hygienic reasons, of extreme freshness, and the amazing variety of edibles dragged up from the sea by Japanese trawlermen, has lent the eating of sushi in Japan a rich cultural particularity, a pervading connoisseurship, and an elaborate ceremonial. Sushi is always accompanied by green tea, and individual tastes are separated by nibbles of pickled ginger, freshening the palate for the new taste sensation that is about to hit it. Tokyo's best sushi-ya specialise in surprising their regular customers with rare treats such as fresh scallops, rare molluscs, sea urchin eggs, or anything else that the master can find in Tsukiji, the city's huge fish market, and put to use.

Kaiten sushi was the innovation that transformed sushi from an exquisite, intimate, expensive experience to a snack food with the convenience and mass appeal of hamburgers and noodles. Because sushi is eaten cold, it can truck along on the conveyor belt for some time without deteriorating; each serving is roughly the same size, so fits on a uniformly sized plate on the belt; and the special advantage of the belt system is that it allows customers to be impulsive, to grab on a whim. The direct relationship with the master is replaced by typically modern impersonality. The quality of the food is only a fraction of that found in a traditional sushi restaurant - but then, so is the price.

Sushi arrived in the West in a big way during the Eighties, when it became identified with high-earning New York yuppies. The fact that it survived this encounter is due to its healthiness, convenience and relative blandness: unlike spicy ethnic dishes, one can eat good sushi day after day after day without tiring of it. The first conveyor sushi restaurant in Britain opened in London's Liverpool Street station in 1994, but Yo! Sushi is the most ambitious attempt yet to turn sushi into a food with mainstream appeal in the UK.

In this it follows the lead of Wagamama, the huge, canteen-like Japanese/Chinese noodle restaurants that have caused such a sensation in the past few years. Although Wagamama sounds Japanese (the word means "selfish") and serves mostly Japanese versions of Chinese noodle dishes, it has broken out of the ghetto of ethnic dining to become truly international in appeal. Yo! Sushi, which has a menu closely based on Japanese sushi restaurants but no Japanese staff or Japanese design motifs, is aspiring to go the same way.

The man behind Yo! Sushi is Simon Woodroffe, and this is his first excursion into catering. Starting out as an assistant stage manager in the theatre, in the Eighties he became a leading designer of stages for rock 'n' roll shows, culminating in Live Aid. His introduction to Japan came three years ago, when he designed the set for an extraordinary concert outside one of Japan's oldest temples, featuring Buddhist monks, the Kodo drummers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jon Bon Jovi. His Japanese hosts introduced him to the phantasmagoric, Blade Runner scenery of downtown Osaka at night. A year later, when he was casting around for a retail project to launch, a Japanese friend in London advised him to open a kaiten sushi restaurant with waitresses in black PVC miniskirts. He declined the second half of the suggestion, but judges the first half to have been a winner.

As in Japan, the chief appeal of this sort of restaurant is that it is so easy. Instead of confronting a lengthy menu full of strange-looking, hard-to-pronounce words, all you do is sit, look, and grab what you fancy. If you are thirsty, each place-setting has its own tap, dispensing fizzy mineral water at pounds 1 a glass. Meanwhile, two robotic drinks trolleys continually circle the restaurant laden with beer, wine, sake and tea. Again, all you have to do is grab what you want as it passes; when you have had enough, the server tots up the colour-coded plates, the bottles and so on, and you pay at the check-out as you leave. As in Japan, there is no service charge and no tipping.

When I visited, three days before the official opening, Yo! Sushi still had some way to go before being fully functioning. As the basic constituents of sushi - flavoured rice, nori seaweed and raw fish - are repetitive, to make a tolerable meal you need a pretty wide variety of fish to choose from, but on Monday the choice was restricted to tuna (the sushi staple - here a rather garish orange), sweet omelette, strapped to its mounting of rice by a band of nori, white fish (hirama), prawn and salted mackerel. The flavour, both of fish and rice, was perfectly OK, however. Soon gourmet chefs will be installed to contribute delicacies such as ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin) and toro (fatty tuna) to the conveyor belt, and Yo! Sushi will become a hard place to walk past.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Junior PHP Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Guru Careers: Front End Web Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: Our client help leading creative agencies ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable